Prof. Vikram Jayaram -Divisional Chair Mechanical Sciences – Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore

Posted December 18, 2019 12:35 pm by

Prof. Vikram Jayaram, Divisional Chair at IISC, has his research interests in the area of thin film mechanical behavior, ceramic processing and tribology.

Read on for a very mature and pragmatic thought on education!

Professor, are you satisfied with the way science is taught in Indian schools, today?

There is no simple answer here. I have a daughter in Standard 11 and another who was in school until 3 years ago. I have been reading the NCERT textbooks, which, I think, are nicely written. The books have certainly gotten better.

The amount of information that people are supposed to take on board, is unfortunately, increasing. This is something that we find even at the undergraduate level. As the field gets more advanced, the volume of information keeps building. So, if you believe that you have to convey all the information that gets built, to the masses, it is not sustainable. You have to knock a few things off. That is the hard part because teachers who have been raised to believe that something is important find it highly difficult to not teach it.

Hence, there is some content consolidation and revamping required. Some concepts require a lot of maturity to comprehend. You can’t expect children to digest it, simply because they just aren’t old enough to do it.

Now, that doesn’t mean that you don’t tell them anything that they cannot follow. There are many things you learn at different levels. You do get to hear exciting things that you don’t fully understand. You keep learning new aspects about it on the go. There are things that you understand only after you have learned it a good number of times.

So you need to choose diligently. Learning too much doesn’t help. Today books are getting fatter and bags heavier. The amount of material that is weighed through before a test is ridiculous. As a consequence, everything else falls loose.

How do you evaluate somebody who is contained with massive information? You give programmed questions and get programmed answers.

Changes to these conditions are something that has to be done at the national level. Teachers don’t have the freedom to decide not to teach certain things. The amount of Euclid, for example, that is taught doesn’t hold value. Children learn geometry in the way people were taught a few 100 years ago possibly since the Greek times. The only reason to do it is that there is content and you can examine people on it. There is no other reason in teaching all this.

Ideally they should be consulting institutions like yours to decide on things like this, right?

There are educational papers that come out. Sometimes, the academies come out with position papers. But, if you ask what is it that gets done finally, it is a compromise where nothing major changes. There are some cosmetic changes here and there – that is all.

For example, when a position paper is put out by the government on starting a new research foundation, it is circulated to everybody for feedback. It is like the Bangalore water supply rolling out a camp to listen to people’s complaints. They do listen but at the end of the day there are systemic problems that are never addressed.

That requires a different type of will. If you have a system where people can strive towards different syllabi for different levels of accomplishment then there are lots of possibilities. But here, the requirements for state boards and the national boards at one level are the same. We seem too obsessed about one exam after another.

What are your thoughts on other curriculum like IB and A levels in India?

It is mostly export-oriented. We have parents who have shifted their children to IB or IGCSE. Their syllabus is different because they are targeted towards applying to foreign Universities, where they look for perhaps a broader spectrum of activities.

These syllabi may be better but that is a way of saying that the American System of Education is broader in values, culture and music, creativity, etc. And so, you build it into the curriculum.

But then those children intend to study abroad and I don’t see them coming to an institute like IISC. Parents, in such cases, have already made a decision to send their children abroad. There are parents who say that they don’t want their children to go through the kind of things they went through. 

Where did you study?

I passed out of Lawrence School at Lovedale, Ooty in 1971. I was there for three years. At that time, nobody studied for an IIT. You just complete your schooling and then write another exam.  The college admissions happened in August or July. So, the 6 months prior to that we’d be just kicking around.

I have also spent 2 months in St Stephen’s, Delhi. My father was posted at Delhi at that time and so I was there. I think I was there only long enough to get ragged and then I went to the UK for my A levels.

The senior Cambridge, after 11 years, was treated as equivalent to the O levels and two more levels of A levels after which there was a separate entrance exams you do for Cambridge. I did Natural Science at Cambridge. You get to choose 4 subjects in your first year and progressively specialize in them if you want.

There are people who don’t look at specialising. They prefer going out and becoming school teachers or bankers etc. So, it is left to you to structure your education the way you want it. But of course, the topics you choose limit what you do in the consecutive year.

For example, in the first year I did Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry. I didn’t do Biology. I did something else which is relevant to Metallurgy and Geology. Then, the second year it was Metallurgy and Physics and that’s how it goes. There is very little teaching there. The teaching is just 8 weeks a semester/term. You are off 28 weeks in a year. 

Do you think schools are teaching science the right way?

I am not very well-versed on the school side of things. I have some friends who went to the alternative schools and thoroughly enjoyed themselves while they were there. It is certainly not the case that none of their products make it to the corporate world. They are as capable as anyone else if they have it in them and I am sure the schools will bring them out as examples to show that just because you are part of such schools you can’t make it big in the world.

But, you have to look at the averages and analyse. It is the parents who decide. If you decide that there are things that are not important when you are 10 or 12, you can make that decision. You should be a little careful what the child wants to do and the opportunities that are available afterwards.

That is the guilt that most parents feel – that you are making decisions on behalf of somebody else. Sometimes we think in terms of how tough our parents were on us and so I should be nice to my children. That mentality of I went slogging through brainless courses which I didn’t understand, why should my children do that, is a thought.

But, the child also needs to develop in such a way that they can take this ecliptic background that these schools supposedly provide and make a living in India.

Sitting out here, I am not dealing with people in the urban upper middle class. Most of our students are people who come from backgrounds where many even support their families back home. Sometimes they are the first people in their families to be exposed to education beyond school level.

There is a solution for people like that and another for people who are growing up in an affluent, highly educated upper middle class household. They get many things at home as part of the society in which they live. They are not going to be left to fend for themselves in the streets. They would go out and make their way into the system at the place they are at.

That is not a solution for everybody. For many, the passport to life is through a professional course. That is what seems to certify you as a person who is worthy of employment. If you change the school system but you don’t change the hurdles that they would face later, they will not be able to handle it. This is in sync with the introduction to Humanities and other programs. 

My daughter, from last month, has had to go to school half an hour early because there is a mandatory period for yoga or something which is not technical. This has been mandated by the government. It is their way of making people broader in their training. This makes it worse because you are not taking something off the plate before loading it again. You are just adding on top of everything else. 

As it is children spend a considerable amount of time at schools. Now, schools are forced to do this and they do it not believing in it. So, there will be some token time devoted to it but the content doesn’t get transmitted. So yes, education does need to become more liberal.

We have a few undergraduates here. They come through an entrance exam which is about as hard as IIT, called the KVPY exam. In principle, they are the top proportion of the population. They had difficulty coping with normal day to day situations which less intelligent people who grew up without pressure would handle with ease. There are interpersonal relations – what happens if you fail an exam – it is the growing up part of your life – that is suffering. The fact of the matter is that it is more important than your knowledge of Physics or Optics of Engineering.

The technical part can take a hit, I don’t think we will lose much in our capability if we remove that part. But the humanities part has to be introduced in a proper way. The reason why children don’t like Humanities in school even when they are in lower classes is because it is harder to teach that than it is to teach Chemistry.

How do you teach History or Social Science? For a start you have to allow people to express their views. But it doesn’t get beyond a point because they are not made to think. Also, it is harder to evaluate.

When I was growing up, 60% in an English exam was considered an achievement. You would perhaps be asked to write about say, Jane Austen and your answer would run into 10 pages perhaps and somebody had to read it.

Our evaluation has also turned Multiple Choice Questions (MCQ). A lot of this has resulted from numbers overload. There are 1 million people who write these exams every year. And, evaluation is mighty difficult.

Today, if I want to hire people at the entry level here, I am not talking about faculty but technical staff, I cannot interview them. I can only go on the basis of the written test.

So, I know if I advertise for a technical assistant to manage a machine shop, I will get about 50,000 applicants because some training institute would have generated them. But, I would like to know if we can work together, if they have the right work ethic, etc.

Designing an exam which is good and which can be evaluated for so many people is not easy.

If this is the condition, what kind of problems will these people be solving tomorrow?

We should be careful about not blaming everybody. The school teachers blame the system, the parents blame the teachers, I will blame the undergraduates and it goes on.

But yes, the problem starts in school. It is only exasperated in the undergraduate degree. Having said that, stepping back a little, it is easy to run everything down. We are probably asking too much from a young country which is just started to put its house in order. 70 years is nothing in the larger scheme of things.

The first thing we are doing now is expanding institutions. When the other IITs were created, initially, all the alumni of the existing ones said it is a disaster and it would lose quality, etc. Yes, you will lose quality. But you can’t have 5 IITs for a population of 2 billion. It was completely unacceptable.

Quality suffers because hiring faculty becomes an issue. That is a given fact. You are not going to be wealthy in order to afford the infrastructure. You have to start somewhere and then in the early stages you will have to suffer the fact that your buildings are not painted, operating out of shacks, etc. So, if you have IITs in some God-forsaken place today, it is okay.

Over a period of time, I think, if you have good directors and administrators, standards will be maintained. You can’t expect a high quality faculty members in wide range of disciplines. But that is okay. We have to do that.

This is the same with Engineering Institutions. They are like the airlines. You deregulate and you get a bunch of airlines. Three years later half of them go bankrupt. This is what happens in Engineering Colleges. But that is not to say that they shouldn’t be there. They may be there for all the wrong reasons and not to promote education. But, I think, it is good because children have some place to go.

If we only have a handful of institutions, children who don’t get through them will have nowhere else to go. At least we have a system to take the kids off the streets. Even if they don’t learn top class engineering, they at least are growing up, making friends, striving to earn some living etc.

We shouldn’t run down those things too much. We should try and build them up better.

Is the understanding of Science itself something that we are communicating well enough?

That is becoming important even in countries like the US. It is more important in the US and the UK because of the ambivalent attitude towards technology and religion. It is becoming more important today because things are big budget.  If you want to open a top class research university, the annual budget can be like the one for a medium-sized company. Somebody has to pay. That is usually the government or some benefactor.

When your bread and butter comes from the government, you have to do a better job. You can’t just say education is important, China spends 2% and we are spending half a percent, etc. Those arguments are valid but we have to go beyond that.

Primary education is not something where you need to do all this. There are certain levels of expenditure which are well established the world over. We are not going to discover anything new. But when it comes to research, the amount of money is part of the problem – it is not the whole problem. Academicians would like to think that if they got the money they could do anything. That is not true.

There is a style of doing research, which unfortunately has become the research analogue of teaching shops that have emerged in response to the entrance exams. I mean, in places like Kota where people are trained to go through that system, faculty members are also gaining from the system. One of them being publications; there is a proliferation of journals which is shocking. It is there primarily to serve the interest of the academic community that wants to get promoted. How does one claim that one has done anything useful? The answer: I have wrote x number of papers.

Now, there used to be very few journals; it was very hard to get it published because there was hardly any people in the game. There was some value in it. Today, we are over flowing with journals. So, what ends up happening is you have a system which has matrix, which is the whole business of rankings. We have forgotten that you learn and in the process you pass exams. Instead, the whole thing is now inverted – you pass exams and assume you have learned in the process. There is a systemic process that has to be addressed across all levels.

Communication of Science is a matter which I think every country goes through. But the professional society is doing this. If a Prime Minister wants advice on quantum technology or digital health, he should be able to reach out to the right members of the academic/research community and demand a position paper on the subject. This is what the academies/ professional society should be doing. It happens but they don’t get listened to. 

They are not directly asked. They volunteer sometimes. But education and research etc., in this country, are not driven by long-range thinking. That is what is largely missing. You do have to allocate the money. The number of times that money gets allocated at the beginning of the year never materialises towards the middle or the end.

Thank you very much for your time today, Prof Vikram Jayaram.


Chair, Mechanical Sciences Division

Prof. Vikram Jayaram


Contact: 91 – 80 – 2293 2807/3243